4/20/2009

Rollins Band Part 1.

I'm not in peak physical shape right now, folks; I know, when am I ever? But right now I'm doing badly even for me. Last night, while riding my bike across an intersection, I got hit by a car. The guy driving was trying to make a left turn right after his light had turned red, and I'd started across the intersection the second the light turned green. The upshot was that he hit me and I rolled across his hood and landed squarely on my right arm in the middle of the street. My arm isn't permanently damaged in any way, and as you can see, I can still type, but if I do so for too long, it really starts to hurt, even more than it does when I'm sitting still. So I'm going to break this entry, which I've wanted to write all weekend, into several parts. Hopefully this can keep me from writing too much at a crack and making my arm hurt any worse than it has to, but who knows how well I'll be able to restrain myself. I'm not exactly known for restraint.

It's been that sort of week, to be honest. Things haven't been terrible, they've just been troublesome enough to make everything seem like a slog. I'm getting around by bike exclusively, and have been for nearly six months, ever since my car died. That's not always a huge problem, but it's been raining a lot this week, which always makes riding a pain in the ass. And now I get hit by a car, just to add actual injury to celestial insult. Meanwhile, I've been feeling lonely and depressed, isolated from my friends, unable to connect. It's been hard to break out of my shell and even make myself try to connect with the people I care about, and then when I do, I don't say the things that are really on my mind. I can't connect with their conversations and I can't start any of my own. It's easier to stay at home when I feel that way. And when I have stayed home lately, I've been listening to the Rollins Band.

I know there are a lot of people out there who don't give the Rollins Band much credit. Henry Rollins is generally considered to be the person who ruined Black Flag, which is doubly funny to me, first because it was obviously Greg Ginn who controlled Black Flag's creative direction throughout, and second, because the later Black Flag stuff was often just as brilliant as the early work. Besides, if it were Henry's fault, wouldn't Ginn's instrumental post-Flag band Gone have therefore ruled? Whatever, it's a stupid argument, but it leaves a lot of people feeling very comfortable with a blanket condemnation of the Rollins Band, sometimes without ever even having heard them.

I, on the other hand, have listened to them a lot over the years. Actually, I heard the Rollins Band before I even heard Rollins-era Black Flag. I had a tape with "Everything Went Black" on it, dubbed from a friend, but that and a couple of Keith Morris era tracks on mixtapes were all I'd ever heard by them when that same friend put "What Have I Got" by the Rollins Band on a mixtape for me. To put it bluntly: that song blew my mind. It begins with silence, into which Henry quietly speaks: "I've got a wantless need." As he says "want," the band slams onto a single chord with full force, then immediately drops back out. A second later, Henry speaks again: "I've got a thoughtless mind." Band again slams down, this time on "thought." You see the pattern here, right? They go through it twice more, Henry telling us, "I've got a needless want," and finally, "I can't..." SLAM! "Unwind." At this point, we're 25 seconds into the track, and the band has played a total of four chords. Other than those chords and a few short statements from Henry, the song has consisted of extended silences. But then, still backed by nothing but silence, he begins to scream: "I've got a heartless hate!" Sure enough, on "heart," the band comes in, but this time they don't stop, instead plowing forward into a midtempo groove that is equal parts blues and 70s era metal, only with every bit of distortion you'd expect from a hardcore record made in 1989. "Whoa!" I thought upon first hearing this, sitting in the backseat of my parents' car, listening to it through my Walkman headphones. I don't remember where we were going, but I doubt it was anywhere I wanted to be. I was a depressed, repressed teenager, unsure of who I was and what the hell my purpose in life could possibly be. I spent most of my time frustrated, especially the portion of that time I had to spend in the company of my parents, my teachers, or really, pretty much anybody. Even my friends, even the ones who listened to cool music just like I did, didn't seem like they really understood where I was coming from. When Henry Rollins screamed lines like "I am a clenched fist looking for a wall to kiss," I knew exactly where he was coming from. And the song's chorus, in which Henry alternately answered the song's titular question with "I've got everything," and "Nothing much at all," rang true to me on a level I didn't even quite understand myself.

I was equally blown away by the playing of his band. Sim Cain's drums seemed to explode out of the speakers, every snare hit seeming on the verge of blowing out my eardrums. Andrew Weiss's grumbling bass had a distorted fury that I'd never heard in a low-end instrument before, and teamed with Chris Haskett's equally furious, distorted guitar to lay down intertwining blues-based licks that were simultaneously total walls of noise and extremely musical. It was obvious that all of these guys were incredibly proficient musicians, but there were multiple points on "What Have I Got" alone where they chose to forsake their musical training in favor of total noise. I couldn't tell whether the birdlike screeching noises that ended the midsong guitar solo were made by guitar or bass, but what I did know was that they sounded singularly unrestrained, and made it obvious that Haskett and Weiss weren't playing a solo to show you how good they were at their instruments but instead to try and push the song to a higher level, to express the same emotions captured in Rollins' angst-ridden vocals without ever opening their mouths. It sure seemed like a success to me.

In fact, I had to have the album. My friend had copied "What Have I Got" onto my mixtape from a caseless CD copy that he'd inherited from an older family member. You see, where I lived in high school, the main employer for the local unskilled labor market was Nimbus Manufacturing, a CD plant that did a lot of pressing work for such companies as Caroline and Relativity, who pressed a significant portion of the independent hardcore, alt-rock, and metal albums being released in the late 80s and early 90s. Everyone with extended family in the area had at least one family member who worked at Nimbus, and everyone had someone they could get rejected CDs, CDs with flaws in their art, through. My friend was always loaning me CDs by awesome bands he'd discovered, and they invariably had no cover. This was how I first heard Primus, the Flaming Lips, and even Can (more about that in another entry, sometime), and it was also how I obtained a dubbed copy of "Hard Volume" by the Rollins Band.

There are a lot of things that I know about that album now that I didn't know then. For example, "Hard Volume" was the last of three albums the Rollins Band had contractually agreed to give their label at the time, Texas Hotel. They hadn't had good experiences with their first two albums on the label, "Life Time" and the half-studio half-live "Do It," and therefore decided to hold back the two songs they considered their best at the time of "Hard Volume"'s recording. Those two songs, "Tearing" and "You Didn't Need," were later released on "The End Of Silence," The Rollins Band's first major-label LP, and "Tearing" was even a popular video on MTV for a while. Whatever their reasons for not putting these songs on "Hard Volume," I'm glad now that it happened that way. "Tearing" and "You Didn't Need" are both on the melodic side of the Rollins Band's sound, and with them out of the way, "Hard Volume" concentrates mostly on longer, darker songs. In fact, opening track "Hard" notwithstanding, "Hard Volume" is an intense, frightening primal scream of an album. "Hard" is an upbeat anthem about staying positive and not letting life grind you down, but as soon as that song ends and "What Have I Got" begins, "Hard Volume" descends into a deep-blues deathtrip that never really lets up.

Listening to "Planet Joe," the fourth track out of seven, is like being bludgeoned steadily for almost five minutes. The song begins with feedback, but after 22 seconds, at no audible prompting, the entire band joins together to begin pounding on one chord. They chug twice, then rest for two beats, then do the doubled chug again. And that's pretty much the song. CHUG CHUG. CHUG CHUG. CHUG CHUG. There is a moment, about two minutes in, where the band breaks away from this rhythm to play an actual riff, but after four lines, they drop right back into the chugs. This is the closest the song comes to an actual verse, and it happens again towards the end, but seriously: most of this song is just the band chugging twice on one chord, pausing for two beats, and then doing it again. It's fucking intense. And what keeps it from being monotonous, what takes it from heavy to downright scary, is Henry Rollins's impassioned vocal. "I don't need no friend to tell me who my friends are," he begins, singing over the constant one-chord chug as if the band is playing something much more conventional. "I don't need some pig to tell me what the rules are." He fairly spits the word "pig" out of his mouth, summing up contempt for cops and all figures of authority who push people around just because they can. When the song really gets intense, though, is after the first more conventional verse, when the band has returned to chugs, and Henry screams, "Been pushed too far! Been pushed too hard! Locked down! Locked down! No! No! No!" I read Rollins's lyric collection, "Unwanted Songs," years and years after first obtaining this record, and learned from it that "Hard Volume" had been recorded just after a tour, and that Rollins had pushed his voice nearly to its limit. He commented in the book that you could hear it straining on some of the songs on this album, and he's right. But back in 1989, when I first heard this album, I had so little knowledge of Rollins's voice that I had nothing to compare it to. I thought the throaty, higher-pitched scream that comes out of him at various points on this album was just how he sang. What's more, I loved it, particluarly on this one section of "Planet Joe." His voice never quite cracks, but as he screams, "Been pushed too hard!" he sounds not so much angry as upset. You can hear in those nearly blown-out vocal chords the sound of a man with his back against the wall. At this point, as well as on several others on "Hard Volume," Henry Rollins sounds like he is positively at the end of his rope. "Planet Joe"'s last line is "This lonely ghetto, it's ugly," and the last 20 or so seconds are just him screaming "ugly" over and over again, over the same repeated chugging that began the song. It's terrifying.

The next track, "Love Song," is even scarier. It's mostly quiet, especially for the first half of its six minutes, but in some ways, that just makes it even more intense. Over a quiet bassline, start-stop tribal drumming, and ambient guitar feedback that is barely present at all for the first quarter or so of the song, Rollins whispers, mumbles, and gasps out the phrase, "I want you. I hate you." These six words are almost the only ones in the song, but he puts so much into their delivery that it doesn't really matter. He grows more focused, and his delivery more frenzied, as the music slowly builds behind him over the first half of the song. By two and a half minutes in or so, he's growling between repetitions of the line, even as his voice never rises above a low snarl. Things change at about the halfway point of the song, though, as the music finally reaches a crescendo and goes into a bluesy dirge. Now Rollins is pleading: "Put your hands on me. Put your mouth on me. Touch me. Make me real." But he continues to return to his previous, repeated incantation, even as he begs for some sort of connection. Finally, at a point when the music is swelling towards a crescendo, he provides an explanation of sorts: "I don't want you because I hate you, I hate you because I want you." He feels trapped by his own desire, stuck in a feedback loop of desire and frustration by feelings he would rather be rid of. As a 15 year old boy who'd never been touched by a woman who wasn't a family member, this made a ton of sense to me. And now, as a 33 year old man who hasn't even kissed a woman in over two years, it makes even more sense. Funny how things come full circle, isn't it? Back to the song: this explanation on Rollins's part seems to trigger a crescendo in the music, and as Sim Cain bashes out elaborate rolls and fills, Haskett and Weiss both deliver solos of sorts, consisting more of feedback than anything else. Overtop of these, Rollins screams, gibbers, and howls incoherently, sounding like a caged animal. The last minute or so of this song sounds like the soundtrack to the climactic scene of a horror movie.

But the real heart of darkness on this album is its penultimate track, "Turned Inside Out." This song, out of all of them here, sounds most like an improvisation rather than an actual constructed song. This could also be said of "Love Song" and "Planet Joe", but at least both of those songs have some musical changes around which they are constructed, however loosely. "Turned Inside Out" is just one riff, being played over and over for close to seven minutes. The blues and metal elements that show up on this album's more structured songs are present in this riff, but at its heart, it's more about plodding dirge than anything else. Sim Cain's beat anchors the entire thing, and he keeps the song on track even at points when everyone else in the band seems trapped inside their own private hell. Andrew Weiss and Chris Haskett have a simple two-chord structure within which to work, but for much of the song, they ditch these chords in favor of shrieking white noise and sheets of distortion. Really, though, all of this is just the background over which Henry Rollins proceeds to completely lose his shit. His strained voice is pushed to the limit on this song, which is best described as a sequel to his version of Black Flag's "Damaged I." On that song, instead of singing the lyrics that Dez Cadena had sung on its previous recording, Rollins improvised some combination of a tirade and a PTSD flashback relating to his repressive military upbringing. "Turned Inside Out" appears to be much the same sort of thing, only related to a different, more nebulous subject. My best guess, considering how many of the songs on "Hard Volume" relate to unhealthy, destructive relationships, would be that this song is a response to some sort of breakup. But really, who knows? What is clear from the lyrics to this song is that Rollins feels like people see him as some sort of monster, a person to be shunned except when he's put on display for mockery. He doesn't say this in terms nearly that clear, though. Instead, he begins with, and returns to, a seemingly prewritten phrase, "Turned inside out for all to see," and then departs on unorganized tangents that, at points, resemble the ravings of a psychopath. At one point, about halfway through the song, he screams the word "freak" over and over, at least 20 times, his voice eventually dissolving into an animal howl. He then switches roles, to that of behind the scenes tormentor: "Get up. Get up! Get up!" he repeats, then repeats "Entertain me!" several times. The next thing he says is "Laughing," then begins repeating the word, drawing out the first syllable in that schoolyard cadence in which little boys the world over say, "HA-ha!" This sequence is interesting in that Rollins manages to transition through three different roles in about 30 seconds' time, going from the ridiculed creature in the cage, to that creature's tormentor, to the onlookers, amused by the creature's pitiable state. I find this section of the song both harrowing and fascinating. When I hear Henry Rollins losing his shit in a studio, I think of all the times I've felt that way too. I think of how cathartic it used to be for me when I myself would do the same sorts of things, back when I sang in a band, and in some ways, merely hearing his experience of that catharsis transfers some of it to me. Life has been hard for me over the past few weeks, and when I listen to someone who sounds completely at the end of his rope freak the fuck out over a noisy, distorted blues/metal dirge, it helps. I feel a little bit better. At the same time, a song like this is frightening for me. I may feel at times like I'm close to the edge, but "Turned Inside Out" is the sound of someone who has gone over that edge and is dangling over the abyss. I know what it's like to be there, but I don't want to go there again.

To me, songs like these are a powerful expression of a sincere emotion that is nearly impossible to deal with. Considering how much trouble I've been having just trying to hack life lately, I rely on records like this to help me through, to make me feel better when I'm down. I know that there are a lot of people out there who hear this sort of thing and can't help but laugh at it. They see it as pointless melodrama. I can't really imagine seeing things that way. I'd rather put myself out there, be real, and make a fool of myself in some people's eyes than hold back for fear of what others might think. I know there are a lot of people who would hear a record like "Hard Volume" and see it as a lot of scenery-chewing hot air. I know that there are people who can't get on the level that Rollins Band are coming from on this album, or who refuse to even try. But even if it would make me seem cooler, more self-possessed, more confident, I'd rather not be like those people. I'd rather have an emotional experience listening to Henry Rollins scream about how this world is ugly and he wants to punch a wall than find the ironic distance necessary to chuckle at the whole thing, as if I'm so above it all. Because I'm not. I'm just as fucked up and full of pain as Rollins was when he made this album. If that makes me uncool, so be it. I'd rather be real than cool.

Rollins Band - "What Have I Got" and "Turned Inside Out"

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